How not understanding our biases leads to unintended consequences

Here’s a neat reminder from Peter Ubel’s blog that not understanding our biases leads to unintended consequences. He’s quoting from Alex Stone’s book, Fooling Houdini

When law enforcement agencies began putting pictures of missing children on the backs of milk cartons, for instance, the perceived rate of childhood abductions, as measured by national surveys, shot up drastically.

My reaction? “Ah, of course – it would, wouldn’t it?”. That’s how availability bias would work, because those cartons would be making child abduction more imaginable. Which flags up how many cultural practices there must be that, due to our biases, have results never imagined – both good and bad. The researcher in me wants to know about control or comparative data: to what extent did abduction fear increase in nations not putting missing children on people’s breakfast tables (for example, I don’t think this happened to any great extent in the UK, though perceived stranger danger has increased)? Were there states in the USA where this didn’t happen and, if so, how does the data differ?

But let’s take this at face value. The result of heightened fear is children being driven everywhere, not being allowed to play outside – which, in turn, impacts on public health / obesity, social capital, the environment, etc. In the UK, we now have the extraordinary situation where, in the space of a few days, England’s Chief Medical Officer has recommended gifting children vitamin D tablets (yes, the same vitamin D you get from being outdoors in the sun) and a group of venerable NGOs has felt the need to campaign for children to spend half an hour daily outdoors.

Now, let’s put this in perspective: no doubt there were positive outcomes from putting missing kids on milk cartons: children found who wouldn’t have been otherwise. So when I read Peter’s blog, I wondered if the people responsible for the milk carton approach would, on balance, believe it had been worth it. They might argue that it’s a non-issue, as no amount of fear is disproportionate in this instance. Either way (and this is my main point), I’m pretty sure that they would have had no expectation initially of heightening parents’ fear.

I’ve argued before that decision-making, policy-making and even politics can be better if we understand our human biases better. And I think this might be another example.

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Why behavioural practitioners should give a sh*t

A small, but growing number of people have studied decision science and/or use its insights to earn a living. I’m lucky to be one of them.

I’m delighted to see communities of practice developing, and I’ve noticed the (apparently) high proportion of jobs using behavioural insights that are in finance or pricing. It has made me think about what we want ‘our’ industry to be like. My view? In a nutshell, we need to give a shit. Right now, that means linking what you do to the impact of behavioural outcomes on lowering resource use and increasing human capital and social capital. For simplicity’s sake, I’m calling this sustainable behaviour.

Here are the three reasons you should be using your influence to make behaviour more sustainable, if you work with behavioural insights:

  • First of all, you should, for the same reason that everyone with any influence should: that the data compels us, if we care about our species’s future. For one thing, every year since the 1980s, we have used more natural resources (on which all our wealth is based) than our planet can replenish; this year (2013), Earth Overshoot Day was on 20 August. Vitally, the additional GDP that has driven the resource use does not make us any happier. Climate change is part of this story: the recent IPCC report confirms what we already knew: that we need to leave in the ground over half of our confirmed reserves of fossil fuels. Second, inequality has grown rapidly in much of the West, particularly the Anglo-Saxon world, in recent decades, exacerbating crime, poor health, mistrust, mental illness and a host of other social ills.
  • Second, it’s time. We’re starting to see ourselves (sort of, kind of) as a fledgling industry. So it’s time to decide – and state – what our values are as an industry. Do we want to uncritically use our insights into human nature to boost companies’ profits by helping them sell people more stuff (or to sell it more effectively), when we know the impacts this economic approach is having? Look to the Design industry as an example: for years, the trend in the industry has been for new, young designers to want to work on service design for social outcomes and, if working on product design, to want this to be sustainable in terms of material use and reuse. They see their industry’s impact on the world, and want to influence it. It’s not hard to find examples.
  • Third, because it should make even more sense to us than to most other professions. Using behavioural psychology or behavioural economics gives a special insight into human decision making. We know that the basis on which it has been assumed that people (you might call us ‘consumers’, but we’re people, you know) make decisions is very flawed. Classic Enlightenment thinking is wrong; homo economicus doesn’t exist. Well, that is the same Enlightenment thinking that drove us to create an economy in which the pursuit of individual wealth is paramount, which encourages unfettered short-term thinking and which does not price externalities (such as the impact of economic activity on natural resources through pollution and soil erosion) because, well, we can’t see them.

That’s it. I’m not launching a campaign. I don’t have a statement of ethics to sign up to. And I don’t have an ask. To start with, I’d just like to see if anyone else agrees.